February is the time that most universities and colleges hold an entrance examination in Japan. When I was a senior at high school, I applied for five universities and one college. I failed all five universities.They send the result by mail and put it up on the campus too. An applicant is allotted a number and the numbers of passed applicants are put up on a big bulletin board there. For one of the universities I applied, I was fairly confident about passing after the examination, and I went to see the result at the campus alone before receiving it by mail.There were lots of numbers on the big board and I was quite sure mine was among them. But it wasn’t. I failed the exam. And there, I discovered that a human reaction to totally huge despair was laugh. To my surprise, completely unaware, I laughed. Besides the applicants, around the board were students who were recruiting those who passed to their clubs, and people at local businesses who were looking for part-timers. Because I laughed, they thought I passed and they flooded around me at once. They handed numerous fliers to me, saying “Congratulations!”I came home by subway. At the station, I dropped to a trash bin a big bundle of fliers that were meant for only those who passed. Tears also fell. During the subway ride, I felt like my life was going in a long endless tunnel instead of a train. I remember how dark my future seemed that day…
I spent almost the whole first year at the private junior high school as an uncool geek. Every get-cool scheme of mine had failed. Neither breaching the school rules nor joining the drama club worked. I hadn’t come up with a new idea and had hung around with my not-so-cool friends.
One day we were having a hilarious time at recess with tongue twisters I had devised. I had made a list of oddly sounded words on a piece of paper and read it out quickly in front of my friends. I seemed to sound so funny and they laughed hard. As we were making a racket, other students began to look at us curiously. Some cool girls from rich families approached us and asked what was going on. They never came near uncool girls but I drew their attention this time. I showed the list and demonstrated my tongue twisters, which didn’t appeal to them at all. They sneered and left. But I realized one thing: cool girls starved for laughter because they put on airs and kept their countenance every day. If I could make them laugh regularly, they might like me and include me in their circle.I commenced my assaults in earnest. Since then, I had behaved in a silly way whenever I passed by cool rich girls at school. I made funny faces, walked by dancing weirdly, or mimicked a TV comedian. At first they just looked at me in dismay, but they were gradually interested in me. They stopped and talked to me, “You’re so funny!” Then I would press an insurance laugh with haphazard puns or gags. Since I didn’t have a talent for making people laugh basically, I was out of comic materials so easily. I had to use the fact of a farmer’s daughter to make them laugh. This last resort of mine really succeeded. Soon one of the cool girls asked me to have lunch together, and I was invited to her circle.
I officially joined the cool group at last. That acted like magic and other students stopped mocking me completely. In the end, after so many trials, to be the class clown was indeed the solution to be cool at school for me…The effect of being in the cool and rich group at junior high school was much bigger than I had expected and was almost magical. I was no longer a geek at school. Other students’ attitude toward me changed dramatically and they even respected me. I jumped into the whole new world.The girls in the group looked through a teen fashion magazine and chatted about its contents zealously at lunchtime. It looked like an adult life to me, as I had never been interested in fashion, let alone talked about it with my friends. After school, they would hang around the downtown area in the city, looking around the shops or having a snack at a fast food restaurant. I had seldom been downtown and I felt like I started a city life all of a sudden. Walking by elegant shops had never been my usual habit, and as for a fast food restaurant, I had never stepped into it before. On weekends, they would go to the movies together. My way of spending time outside school completely changed and it was almost like I began to live in America.
On the other hand, there was a huge set back to be a part of the group. It was horribly costly. My scant monthly allowance didn’t last more than a week while other girls from the rich family didn’t have to care. A coin jar in the dining room in my house became empty quickly. My younger sister’s stash of money in her desk drawer had been shrinking steadily by my regular stealing.One of the girls in the group had a friend in a boys’ school and he invited us to his school’s homecoming. Since ours was a girls’ school, it was an exciting opportunity to meet boys. There, the boys asked us out after the homecoming, but I was the exclusion among the group. No one asked me out. While they were headed for a fast food restaurant, I went home, crying.I would do anything to stay in the cool circle, including acting a totally different person by giving up being myself…
It has gotten warmer little by little and spring is near. Shortly, cherry blossoms are blooming here and there around Japan, making a usually somber country beautiful. Cherry blossoms mean the season to begin a new year at a school and an office in Japan. It was spring when I entered elementary school and this time of year reminds me of how I felt at that time.At Japanese schools, the whole school assembly is held once a week. I remember the first assembly at the elementary school held in the schoolyard. The school had a large number of students, close to 2,000. They gathered in the schoolyard to listen to a principal’s weekly address, lined up in neat rows by the class and the grade. As I was in the first grade, my row was near the edge of the yard. I glanced at the far side of it, where the sixth-graders stood in line. They were tall and looked like grown-ups to me.And all of a sudden, a strong sense of claustrophobia seized me. I realized that I would keep coming to this school until I grew that big. Considering the excruciating two years I spent at kindergarten, coming here for six years seemed forever and torture. On top of that, it wouldn’t end there. Three years at junior high school and another three years at high school would follow. My mother had already talked about a college then, too. The day I would be freed from school I loathed so much would be so far away. I felt as if I had been put in prison with a life sentence, while the principal was congratulating the first-graders in his speech and cherry blossoms were warmly looking down…
When my younger sister had learned Japanese dancing for a couple of years, my mother decided to get her on a local TV talent show. Unlike me, my sister was always my mother’s pride for her prettiness.
To be on the show, there was an audition in a city, about 20 miles away from our home. My father was going to drive them there. I assumed they would go with just three of them, leaving me behind as usual. For this particular occasion though, I felt rather happy not to join them because I had borne a grudge against Japanese dancing since my mother let my sister take lessons not me. But my mother had the nerve to demand me to come with them to the audition, saying that it was a huge event for my sister and I should show support for her.
I got in the car, not for her audition but for a possibility to eat out at a restaurant on our way back, which we hardly did and the three of them might do without me. My mother was never punctual and we were already late by the time we left home. From then, things were just like the movie, ‘Little Miss Sunshine’. When we got there, the registration was closing and the judges were leaving. My mother desperately begged for the audition. They reluctantly allowed it with the obvious intention of making it finish quickly. After my sister danced for a few seconds, they stopped the music and said thank-you. I kept asking my mother if it meant she passed or not while my sister gloomily undressed.
When my mother admitted my sister failed, I felt over the moon. I thought justice had been served. I was in an utterly good mood and was saying, “Let’s eat out! Which restaurant shall we go?” all the way in the dismal car. My parents and my sister were too depressed to respond to me and we ended up going straight home. I couldn’t get to eat out after all…
the new Kyoto
When I spent 40 minutes aboard the bullet train bound for Kyoto from Tokyo, an alarming notion popped into my head. “Did I miss Mt. Fuji?” It’s around this time that Mt. Fuji comes into view closely in the bullet train window. Somehow Mt. Fuji is a special mountain for Japanese people. It’s said that seeing the first sunrise of the year from the top of Mt. Fuji brings a happy new year. Many of them want to climb it once during their lifetime. They regard it as something holy and good luck. I myself try to see it every time I take a bullet train to Kyoto, and pray to it for a good trip. It was cloudy and rain looked imminent on that day of my latest trip to Kyoto. Whether the train already passed Mt. Fuji or it wasn’t visible because of thick clouds was uncertain. The outcome of the trip depended on Mt. Fuji. I felt that this trip might end terribly if I couldn’t see it, and I looked for it frantically. “There it is!” Above the dark clouds, its top section poked out clearly. “I see it! A nice trip is assured!” I was relieved and in high spirits. While I jinx it when I don’t see it, however, I’ve had horrible trips even when I saw a clear Mt. Fuji. Although I duly understand an outcome of a trip doesn’t have to do with whether I see it or not, there’s a reason why I’m nervous enough to pray to the mountain. A trip to Kyoto means homecoming and meeting my parents. Three out of every four visits, they give me a hard time. They insult me, deny me and complain everything about me. I sometimes feel my life is in danger when I’m with them because of their relentless attacks. Not to be strangled by them while I’m sleeping, I avoid spending the night at my parents’ home and stay at a hotel instead. I would rather not visit and see them, but I know it would make things worse. I couldn’t imagine how this particular trip would go especially as it was my first visit since my parents sold their house. They could no longer afford to keep their large house and its land inherited by our ancestors. Their financial crunch made them sell it where my family had lived for over 1000 years. They moved out to a small, old condominium outside Kyoto. Thinking about the situation they were now in, I couldn’t imagine their state of mind other than being nasty. The bullet train slid into Kyoto Station after two and a half hours. I stepped out on the platform for the first time as a complete tourist who didn’t have a house or a family there. To my surprise, Kyoto looked different. I couldn’t tell what and how, but it was decisively different from Kyoto I had known. It used to look grim and gloomy as if it was possessed by an evil spirit. But now it was filled with clean fresh air and looked bright. I would see all but mean people, but they also turned into nice people with smiles. I checked in a hotel and looked out the window. Rows of old gray houses were there. I used to think Kyoto was an ugly city with those somber houses, but I found myself looking at even them as a tasteful view. I’d never thought having the house I grew up in torn down and parting with my ancestor’s land would change the city itself altogether. Or maybe, it was me that changed…
I spent my schooldays from junior high to college at a Catholic school not for religious reasons but for my mother’s vanity. She wanted me to attend the most prestigious school in Kyoto in order to brag about it. With no religious background, I encountered quite a few unfamiliar events at school that held Catholic ceremonies regularly.
The school often celebrated the Mass, which was an entirely new and different culture to me and I hadn’t the slightest idea what they were doing. Christian students sat in the front row with white lace veils on their heads at the assembly hall. The priest gave them something that looked like a soft snack and they ate it. I regarded it as the believers’ benefits to have a snack during the Mass.
The school held the annual Candle Service near Christmas. Before my first-ever Candle Service at junior high, a Catholic sister told us to bring something from home as a donation for the Candle Service. She added for those who couldn’t think of what to bring, that bars of soap would do. I had no clue what the Candle Service was. All I could imagine was I would receive some sort of service from sisters. I looked forward to it because I thought sisters would serve cake or tea like a Christmas party, and I could get it just with a bar of soap. But as it turned out, we just stood in line holding a candle at the dark assembly hall and sang several hymns endlessly to the poor accompaniment of the orchestra club students. While singing, we got on the stage one by one and put a bar of soap or other donations into a cardboard box. When all the students finished putting their donations into the box, the service was over without any cake.
The school had a big, tall fir tree across from the entrance gate. It stood by the side of one of the school buildings like a wall decoration. Its top reached as high as the third floor of the building. Judging from its size, it was planted there when two sisters came from U.S. after WWII and opened the school.
Around Christmastime, the tree was decorated with ornaments and made the school look beautiful. I was a member of the student board when I was a sophomore. Until then, I hadn’t known that the decoration was a student board’s task. I felt exhilarating for the first time as a student board member. The boring board revived and every member had so much fun decorating the tree together. The tree was too tall to decorate the upper part from outside by a ladder. We got inside the building, put an ornament on the tip of a broomstick and stretched it out of the window of the third floor. Gold tinsel garlands were thrown toward the tree from the forth floor window. It was the biggest Christmas tree I had ever decorated.
I had had all those Christian events and classes in the Bible for years until college and yet I never really understood the meaning. I left school, got out into the world, and worked as a musician. Through the years of making music that hasn’t been paying, I feel I finally know why I continue and have spent so much time and energy to create a good song, which hasn’t brought me money or fame. It took a long time to understand, but better late than never, I suppose…
Back to Montreal
A trip to California I took in May changed my mindset. When I found bargain fares online, I quickly decided to go to Montreal for the first time in seven years by using my emergency savings. I felt it was ridiculous to keep money in a bank although we are mortal and we don’t know when our time is up.
I once lived in Montreal for about a year in total. I wanted to stay there, but I had to leave and come back to Japan as my money ran out. Since then, I have always hoped to live there again or at least to visit there as a tourist. What I like about Montreal are its beauty, a relaxing atmosphere and people there who seem to live to enjoy life rather than achieve success. I’m not sure if it’s because of their ways of life or the French-spoken region of Canada, but they are fashionable with excellent taste. For that combination of the city and the people, just walking down the street is fascinating enough.
I took on a 12-hour flight to Toronto during which I happened to find ‘Tomorrowland’ among the in-flight movies, saw it twice and cried yet again. I went through immigration where an immigration officer gave me lengthy, irrelevant, even harassing questions including about my pin I was wearing on my jacket. It was a pin from ‘Tomorrowland’ and she almost made me begin to explain the whole movie story.
The airport system in Toronto was somewhat odd. I was just in transit en route to Montreal, but I needed to pick up my luggage, carry to the distant counter and check it in all over again. Although I had already been through the security checkpoint before I got on board in Japan and had never left the airport, I had to do it again. I ended up gobbling a whole bottle of water in front of the security gate, which was exactly what I did on the last trip to California.
After the security checkpoint, I saw an information screen for departure to make sure the gate number for my flight to Montreal. The flight was missing. There was no information about my flight, no cancelled, no delayed, no nothing. Among the long list of departing flights, my flight itself didn’t exist. I was close to panic. And I realized we don’t have anybody around for something like this nowadays. There is no information counter, airport workers don’t know about flights, and airline personnel at the gates don’t know other flights’ status. I had no one to ask.
The only place I came up with as where the airline personnel with flight information were working was an executive lounge. I went up there and asked about my flight. She glanced at her computer display and said, ‘It’s on time.’ My flight did exist, but for some weird reason, the airport screen showed information only for selected flights. I had scurried around the terminal for this absurd system.
I finally arrived at Montreal after a one-and-a-half-hour flight. A cab ran on the freeway at 75 miles per hour through the night and downtown Montreal appeared in 20 minutes. It was the same freeway on which a cab carried me in the dark before dawn seven years ago when I was leaving for Japan. I remember I wished upon the moon that I could return here someday, as I had no way to find the money to come back. The moon satisfied my wish, I supposed.
I checked in a hotel and looked out of the window. Beneath the window was Sherbrooke Street where many people were still passing by. Above the town lights of the city, I saw the cross on the Mont-Royal that was lighted up and floated in the dark sky. It was a view that I felt like I was strayed into a dreamland. I thought my bold decision to spend money for this trip was right. It would be a big loss not to come to such a beautiful place like this when it exists. I literally fell down to bed to sleep since I was completely exhausted from the 24-hour trip from home to here and the turmoil at Toronto Airport.
Next morning, I woke up early because of jet lag. The first thing I decided to do in Montreal wasn’t to get a rest in the hotel room or to take a walk in the city. It was going to casino to win back all the money I had spent there in the past…
Marriage in Japan
I went out for lunch with my partner at a cafe the other day that stood across the train station in a Japanese desolate rural town where I live. To call it a cafe is a bit too fancy. It’s not the likes of Starbucks but rather a small old mom-and-pop diner that was built well over 30 years ago and remained as it was, which perfectly matched this old town itself.
We sat at the table and overheard a conversation from the table next to us. Three old women in their eighties sat around the table by the window. “She has passed away, too.” “This could be the last time we get together.” Although they were exchanging a downright sad conversation, they were talking in a matter-of-fact way and their chats were lively.
While we were eating a salad with watermelon that came with our main dishes of curry and rice with a fried pork cutlet, a family of three came in. A boy about ten years old and his parents in their thirties sat at the table near ours. As soon as their orders were taken, the boy started reading one of comic books that the diner placed for customers, and his father went outside to smoke. His mother was staring into space.The father came back in when their dishes arrived on the table but they didn’t talk while they were eating. Except that the parents occasionally said something to the boy separately, there was no conversation between the parents. After they finished eating, the father went out again to make a phone call, the boy played with diner’s puzzle toys, and the mother stared into space again. I saw through the window the father talk with someone over his phone pleasantly while smoking and laughing. He came back in and also began to play with a puzzle toy. I thought it was much more fun for him to have lunch with a person on his phone.
Quite too often, I see a married couple having almost no conversation at a restaurant. I wonder if people stop talking each other when they get married. While they must have clicked each other enough to get married in the first place, what makes them fall silent? Since I have never been married, I have no idea whether it’s because they have changed or they have lost interest in each other after marriage.
The closest married couple I know is my parents, which means my knowledge about marriage is a generation old. My parents are from farming villages in Kyoto that is the oldest city in Japan. According to the old custom, their marriage was arranged by their families’ intention not their own. Inevitably, they were strangers with no affection whatsoever. In my childhood, my mother used to say, “I wouldn’t have married such an ugly guy like your father unless he had money.” Times have changed, and people get married by their own will in Japan. Nevertheless, if a couple who liked each other finds it difficult to talk once they marry, I don’t understand what marriage is for. The mystery deepens still more.
The family of three left hastily after they were done with the toys and staring. The party of three old women ordered refills of their soft drinks repeatedly and lingered at the table with their conversations, as if they were reluctant to leave the diner.
There’s an old Japanese custom called ‘Age of Thirteen Visit’. A child who reaches thirteen years old by the traditional system of age reckoning visits a specific local shrine to receive wisdom.
The important event has one critical rule. The thirteen-year-old visitor should never look back until they pass through the shrine’s gate after the visit. If it happens, wisdom they’ve just gotten is returned. Every time a topic of the visit was brought up by some chance in my childhood, my mother would strictly instruct me not to look back when my visit came. It had become a repeated threat for me. After those years, I reached eleven years old, which is thirteen by the traditional system, and the day for the visit arrived.
I was so tensed and nervous because of years of my mother’s threat. I got dressed up with kimono and my mother put a wig on my hair to make me look grown-up. While I was greedy enough to look forward to getting wisdom, I was anxious about looking back as much. From the moment we left home, my mother kept reminding me not to look back at the shrine. As the pressure had accumulated, a sense of panic had been built inside me. By the time we prayed at the altar in the shrine and started leaving, I was panicky. On the spot about only several yards to the exit gate, I couldn’t stop myself and looked over my shoulder. I blundered away my once-in-a-lifetime visit. My mother made sure I didn’t look back when we passed the gate. I lied and said no.
On our way home, we dropped by my aunt’s house. She noticed that I was wearing a wig. But when she pointed it out, my mother instantly denied it. I didn’t understand why she had to lie about such a small thing like a wig, but she just insisted it was my real hair. My aunt slipped beside me when we were about to leave and asked me if it was a wig. Although I said yes indifferently, she triumphantly uttered, “I knew it!” She sounded as if she had beaten me and I felt annoyed. I hated my mother’s totally unnecessary lie. And as for me, I went through a terrible teenage life with my own trifling lies. I believe that was because I had returned wisdom at the shrine on my Age of Thirteen Visit…